Other Risks of Boatbuilding
by John Tuma
excerpted from "Messing
About In Boats"
Boatbuilding can be a risky pastime.
Many of the risks that the boatbuilder faces,
such as dismemberment by power tools, being crushed by heavy objects, dangerous
chemicals, and for those of us who work in
wood, slivers, have been covered in depth by
any number of learned writers (see, for example, David Carnell's article about chemical safety in the October 15 MAIB). Those
risks, albeit serious, are not what this article
is about. No, my purpose is to acquaint the
aspiring builder with risks that have been
neglected by many, if not most, writers who
are concerned with the craft of boat building.
One danger facing the boatbuilder that
is often overlooked concerns the obsessive
behavior that seems to afflict many otherwise
reasonable people when they start building a
boat. I refer to this form of madness as
"WoodenBoat Syndrome" (so named because
the glossy pictures in this fine magazine have
been demonstrated to produce this malaise).
While the classic symptoms seem to be
most prevalent in those of us who build boats
from wood, those who build in other materials are not immune from the obsessive/compulsive behavior that is symptomatic of this
madness. Examples include waking from a
deep sleep to make notes about adding a small
cuddy to the 8' pram out in the garage, or
building a mock-up of the entire interior of
your 16' daysailer to evaluate seat spacing
when just setting two chairs 22" apart would
do, or having 12 different custom color paint
samples which cannot be returned made up
to get the color just so.
The important thing to remember when
afflicted with this syndrome is that no one,
other than your fellow travelers down this
path to madness, care one whit whether your
bungs are the same color as the wood or that
the grain of the bungs is properly aligned.
Efforts to work into the conversation the
clever way you split that $97 piece of teak so
that the grain of your coamings are perfectly
matched will only send your friends scurrying when you round the corner. This kind of
high art is fabulous, but talking about it is
boring for everyone who does not worship at
the altar of mirror gloss finishes.
Closely related to WoodenBoat Syndrome is the risk of addiction. As you descend
ever deeper into your obsession you will find
yourself looking at plans for your next boat
before you have finished the one you just
started. However, like many addictions there
are moments of clarity wherein you will see
that you have a problem. For me, this moment always comes on the third day that I am
sanding the interior of the hull, getting it ready
for the buff sandstone paint with just a hint
of medium ochre highlights. "I hate this, I
hate this. I'd really rather be sailing," I say
over and over again.
After the first boat I waited a year to start
the next one. After the second boat, I couldn't
stand the thought of starting another boat for
almost two months. Now, 18 boats later, I
have given in to my addiction. I start lofting
the next boat before the paint on the previous
one is even dry.
Once your addiction has set in, the next
risk follows naturally enough, the risk of accumulation. Unlike bottle caps or baseball
cards, the accumulation of boats, even small ones, is not a harmless little quirk. Boats take
up a lot of space and boats rarely travel without a lot of associated gear such as paddles, oars, sails, flotation vests, seat cushions, dry
bags, polypropylene underwear (because cotton kills when it's wet), and so on. At first it
doesn't seem like much of a problem. That
double bladed paddle that you need for your
kayak stands neatly in the corner with the
brooms and the kayak hangs out of the way
from the rafters in the garage.
But a kayak is not a rowboat, and the
rowboat you need is too big to hang from the
rafters. So it goes on a trailer under the overhang off the garage and the riding mower you
just had to have, along with the wheelbarrow,
the bicycles, and other assorted garden tools,
are consigned to the shed in the back yard.
This is not an ideal arrangement because none
of these things, with the exception of the
riding mower, can be retrieved for use in less
than half an hour, but until now no one is
complaining too much. And your precious
rowboat, with the finely varnished oak rails,
the mahogany trim, and the hand carved
nameplate is safely stored out of the weather.
Alas, if only your boatbuilding mania
was confined to the accumulation of boats. It
is not. Your garage is now stocked with more
tools than your local hardware store and
you've erected a "temporary" building shed
out in the back yard. Your wife is getting angry and keeps muttering, "It was a black day
the day that I met you," whenever you are
within earshot. Her car is now permanently
parked in the driveway, the clean laundry is
frequently covered with sawdust, and except
for the swath of grass surrounding your building shed, which you faithfully mow with your
riding mower, none of the yard work is getting done.
Now your rowboat is not the sailboat you
dream of, which is why a new boat is going
together in the temporary shed in the backyard. And so it goes- Each boat that is built
meets a particular need that cannot be filled
by any of the other boats in the fleet. And a
fleet it quickly becomes, because one of the
reasons that you build boats is to try out new
and unique designs that offer new and unique
This leads to the final stage of accumulation, the storage facility. The kayak continues to grace the rafters in the garage, although
it hasn't been used in two years. The little
outboard skiff you built last year now occupies the space in the side yard that used to
belong to the rowboat, just waiting to go fishing.
The little sailboat you built three years
ago is now stored in the storage facility
around the corner, along with the rowboat,
and while there is some reason to question
why you still cling to these boats, the clever
use of the storage facility has reduced the friction on the home front. Your wife continues
to accept that your madness is better than
drinking as a hobby, but only because several of your boats are hidden.
One of the risks that has been well documented in the boatbuilding literature is the
risk that this hobby poses to one's marital relations. However, while the problem has
been well documented, the reasons why it
poses such a strain have not been explored in
adequate detail. Accumulation without adequate provisions for concealing parts of the
fleet are certainly one reason for strain, as is
your demonstrated inability to have a conversation without describing in grotesque
detail the clamping sequence you developed
to insure a fair curve lo the yard on your
But the real reason for strain (other than
the "temporary" shed that now stretches the
full length of the back yard) is that a boat builder does not operate in the same space
time continuum as his wife. For example, she
pokes her head out the door to say that dinner will be ready in ten minutes. "Okay," you
respond, "I just need to fit in this last garboard
clamp and screw it into place."
Three hours later you have finished your
ten-minute job, dinner is cold, the kids have
gone lo bed, and your wife is curled up on
the couch watching "Thelma and Louise"
while quietly plotting her revenge. Now does
not seem like the right time to explain how
you had to shim the garboard on the seventh
and twelfth frames to get a beautiful smooth
In this moment of clarity you realize that
something has got to change. So you decide
to become a professional boatbuilder. The
first step is to find a shop where you can work.
You get your tools out of the garage and your
wife can park her car in there for the first time
in years. Vegetables will grow where once
only boat shed could be seen. You won't have
to hide your fleet, you'll sell it instead. And
because boatbuilding will be your job, you
won't be working nights and weekends.
Your madness is complete. The final risk
of boatbuilding to be considered here is the
"Professional Fantasy." This one has been
explored in some depth in the literature. No
matter how alluring it seems, the bottom line
is that there isn't any money in boat building
because (a) WoodenBoat Syndrome leads you
to spend 18 hours getting a perfect varnish
job on the coamings, because (b) when you
started it only seemed like it would take about
two hours to get the right finish, but (alas, c)
the whole rest of the world operates in the
same space time continuum as your wife.
How many $6,000 rowboats do you really
think you can sell?
As I said at the beginning, boatbuilding
is a risky pastime. In addition to the physical
dangers of working with tools and chemicals,
there is a whole range of psychological afflictions that are even worse. In the end it's a
lot cheaper to just buy a boat and you'll actually have the time to use it. Yep, buying a
boat is by far the best bet. It's cheaper, faster,
and you get more time on the water.
Yep, you get more time on the water. It's
faster. It's cheaper. But to heck with the logic,
there just isn't anything that compares to
watching that boat you built with your own
hands splash down for the first time...